UPDATED with press conference, more details: NBCUniversal-owned Carnival Films, the producer of Downton Abbey, today announced that Season 6 will be the final season of the worldwide hit TV drama. The news isn’t entirely surprising, given that last January NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt told TV critics Julian Fellowes long awaited NBC period drama The Gilded Age had been put on the front burner – disturbing news for Downton fans, given that he writes every episode of the PBS hit.
Today will be marked as a black day for PBS, given that Downton single-handedly put its Masterpiece franchise back on the map and in the black. Masterpiece EP Rebecca Eaton this morning acknowledged the series has “been a game-changer” for the franchise that struggled for years to find a corporate sponsor, until Downton came along and turned it back into the prettiest dress in the shop.
In an international phone call with press this morning, Carnival chief Gareth Neame said he was confident PBS and ITV had hoped for more seasons beyond Season 6. “It’s been tremendously important for both broadcasters,” he said.
Neame said he and creator Fellowes made the decision to quit while they were ahead, in conjunction with the cast, and insisted The Gilded Age did not kill Downton Abbey. “It isn’t the case that Julian said, ‘I want out’ and others were forced” to go along with his wishes, he told reporters on the call. But, Neame also said he never would have considered continuing the show without Fellowes, who has written every episode of the series.
“It’s been about integrity,” not “How do we mechanize the production of Downton” with other writers, Neame said, describing Downton as a “bespoke, well-crafted piece of television.”
“With this show we always try to get our timing right. Our feeling is that it’s good to quit while you’re ahead. We feel the show is in really strong shape…The show is so popular globally but the danger with this sort of thing is to let it go on forever. It’s very addictive to want to do that.”
Neame seemed to dodge queries about a Downton Abbey spinoff, but said both he and Fellowes like the idea of a Downton movie, as has been speculated, but maintained nothing had been done on that front.
He reminded reporters six seasons is a long run by UK television standards.
“Let’s not forget… we thought we would have hopefully a good success in the UK and the traditional outlets for British content globally would be there.” Instead, he noted, it’s now distributed in 250 territories and is “one of the biggest shows on American television. When we started we would have been very happy with three seasons.”
Neame scoffed at a suggestion the timing was owing in any way to a ratings dip. On ITV, he acknowledged, last season was down about 10%, “but that means down to 10.5 million viewers. There is no show that gets canceled with 10.5 million viewers.”
Today’s announcement was made by Carnival in partnership with ITV in Britain and PBS in the U.S. On ITV, Downton Abbey is the highest-rated UK drama of the past decade across any channel, with an average of 11 million viewers over the course of the five series, including Christmas specials. In the U.S., Downton is the most watched drama in PBS history, with Season 5 watched by nearly 26 million viewers, and episodes streamed more than 12.6 million times.
The final season of the series will wrap up characters’ storylines, Neame promised, and depict the coming to an end of the “idea of aristocracy” in Britain. “That world is coming to an end” on the show already, he noted. “As we know, modern life is nothing like we depict in the show. We will now, in the final season, see how that way of life comes to an end.”
The success of Fellowes’ drama, in which he took a classic old-fashioned format and layered it with ER-like pacing and West Wing’s multiple storylines, created a push-pull between goals of NBC and public television.
NBC had announced Gilded Age more than two years ago, lining up Downton’s creator to create and EP the fictional saga about New York millionaires in the late 19th century. (NBCU had bought Carnival Films after the launch of Downton). Gilded Age was put on hold with Downton’s success as Fellowes continued to write every episode, giving the Oscar and Emmy winner carte blanche to come work on the NBC series when he was done with Downton.
In January, however, reporters’ ears perked up when Greenblatt said at a news conference, “I think he’s at a point now where he’s able to start developing and writing our new show,” adding, “Hopefully this show will be coming to life sometime in the next season.”
“The Downton journey has been amazing for everyone aboard,” Fellowes said in today’s announcement. “People ask if we knew what was going to happen when we started to make the first series and the answer is that, of course we had no idea. Exactly why the series had such an impact and reached so many people around the world, all nationalities, all ages, all types, I cannot begin to explain.
“I suspect the show will always be a principal marker in most of our careers as we set out from here,” he continued. “And if so, I consider that a blessing and a compliment.”